Why go to seminary? Why not just take classes online, or learn what you can from your pastor? Why not just get busy doing the work of ministry and learn as you go? Why take the time, why spend the money, why uproot your life?
These are the same questions (minus the online thing) Timothy Dwight had in mind when he stood to address an assembled crowd at the opening ceremonies of Andover Seminary in Massachusetts. Andover, the first seminary in America, opened its doors in 1808. Until its founding, aspiring ministers desiring theological education usually learned what they could through an apprenticeship with a local pastor. However, Dwight, the president of Yale College and grandson of Jonathan Edwards, believed something more than a liberal arts education and a mentor were needed to prepare future pastors. So before the first seminary class was offered in America, Dwight sought to answer the question, Why go to seminary? His answers may be 204 years old, but they can still help us today.
Dwight explained that the new seminary would give future ministers sufficient, undistracted time to learn. Too often, he lamented, men began their ministries “very imperfectly fitted for their profession,” because they didn’t have enough money to “pursue their studies through a sufficient length of time.” Andover sought to address this problem by providing instruction, use of books, and, “at least to a considerable extent,” housing and living expenses.
The times of free seminary tuition, food, and housing are long gone. Many today go into ministry “very imperfectly fitted” because they don’t think they can afford the years or money needed to obtain a seminary education. Of those who do attend, too many are burdened with excessive student loans. Seminaries that can keep tuition low and provide substantial scholarships and grants provide a great service to future pastors and their churches. This kind of investment should be a priority of every denomination and local church. By serving students in this way, churches will also bless themselves with pastors who have taken the time to prepare for ministry.
2. The Library
One of the greatest strengths of Andover Seminary, Dwight argued, was that it would have a library “sufficiently various, and extensive, for the purposes intended.” Full-time students have lots of time to read—more than they’ll ever have in full-time ministry. Broad and deep reading is one of the main purposes of seminary. Professors are there to teach and mentor, but also to force you to read. As you read, you learn and grow, you learn how to read, and you learn what’s worth reading.
You can’t afford all the books, journals, articles, and dictionaries you’re required to read. That’s why strong seminaries and divinity schools have extensive and growing libraries. A good library gives you access to vast amounts of knowledge and distilled wisdom you cannot find online. If you’re in seminary, take advantage of the library—you’ll miss it when you’re gone.
3. The Faculty
Mastering any one of the “branches of theological learning” (Bible, apologetics, systematic theology, church history, practical theology) is enough to exhaust “the utmost talents of a single man.” Therefore, Dwight observed, it’s impossible for a single pastor to teach all these disciplines to those he mentors. If there were a pastor “ever so competent,” his other pastoral duties would make it “impossible for him to command sufficient time to communicate the knowledge, which ought to be considered as indispensable.”
The seminary, on the other hand, has professors who devote themselves to a level of study and teaching that isn’t possible for a single pastor. Don’t misunderstand Dwight (or me). There are things your pastor can teach you that no seminary professor can. That’s why local churches must not outsource pastoral training to the seminaries. But there are also things that a good seminary can teach you that most pastors have neither the time nor ability to teach. In most cases, it takes both a good local church pastor and a good seminary faculty to train a good future pastor.
4. The Other Students
“All ministers ought to be friends.” And in order to develop friendships, they have to know each other. However, Dwight explained, when “ministers are educated separately and solitarily, this knowledge, in ordinary cases, cannot exist.” But at a seminary, “being educated together, being of the same age, pupils of the same instructors, tenants of the same buildings, engaged in the same delightful pursuits, and actuated, as we may reasonably hope, by the same spirit, they can hardly fail to be of one accord, and of one mind.”
Good seminaries strengthen the unity between churches by building bonds between ministers. The friendships you build while you’re in seminary will strengthen your ministry for years to come. The guy who sits next to you in 8 a.m. Hebrew class may someday lead his church to support your missionaries. The couple you meet at orientation may pray for you and your family for the rest of your life. The classmate you study with for a final may someday labor beside you for reformation in your denomination. So go to seminary, devote yourself to reading, and learn all you can from your professors. But don’t fail to invest time in relationships while you’re there.
5. The Doctrine
In making his case that such a thing as a seminary was needed, Dwight concluded by assuring his hearers, “The doctrines, which will be taught here, are the doctrines of the Reformation.” He went on to explain how Andover’s teaching would be biblical and orthodox and beneficial for building up the church. The seminary, Dwight assured his listeners, would exist for the benefit of the churches.
In 1808 there was only one seminary in America. Today there are dozens. But the fact remains that a seminary’s most important task is to pass on sound doctrine to the next generation of pastors for the benefit of the churches. Choose a seminary that takes this responsibility seriously, and you will bless both yourself and your future church.
All citations are from Timothy Dwight, A Sermon Preached at the Opening of the Theological Institution in Andover (Boston: Farrand, 1808).